His companion blushed with surprise and pleasure.
‘Does it seem strange to you, Mrs. Widdowson?’
‘Oh—why? Not at all.’
All at once she had brightened astonishingly. This subject was not pursued, but for the rest of the time they talked with a new appearance of mutual confidence and interest, Monica retaining her pretty, half-bashful smile. And when Barfoot alighted at Bayswater they shook hands with an especial friendliness, both seeming to suggest a wish that they might soon meet again.
They did so not later than the following Monday. Remembering what Mrs. Widdowson had said of her intention to visit Burlington House, Barfoot went there in the afternoon. If he chanced to encounter the pretty little woman it would not be disagreeable. Perhaps her husband might be with her, and in that case he could judge of the terms on which they stood. A surly fellow, Widdowson; very likely to play the tyrant, he thought. If he were not mistaken, she had wearied of him and regretted her bondage—the old story. Thinking thus, and strolling through the rooms with casual glances at a picture, he discovered his acquaintance, catalogue in hand, alone for the present. Her pensive face again answered to his smile. They drew back from the pictures and sat down.
‘I dined with our friends at Chelsea on Saturday evening,’ said Barfoot.
‘On Saturday? You didn’t tell me you were going back again.’
‘I wasn’t thinking of it just at the time.’
Monica hinted an amused surprise.
‘You see,’ he went on, ’I expected nothing, and happy for me that it was so. Miss Nunn was in her severest mood; I think she didn’t smile once through the evening. I will confess to you I wrote her a letter whilst I was abroad, and it offended her, I suppose.’
‘I don’t think you can always judge of her thoughts by her face.’
’Perhaps not. But I have studied her face so often and so closely. For all that, she is more a mystery to me than any woman I have ever known. That, of course, is partly the reason of her power over me. I feel that if ever—if ever she should disclose herself to me, it would be the strangest revelation. Every woman wears a mask, except to one man; but Rhoda’s—Miss Nunn’s—is, I fancy, a far completer disguise than I ever tried to pierce.’
Monica had a sense of something perilous in this conversation. It arose from a secret trouble in her own heart, which she might, involuntarily, be led to betray. She had never talked thus confidentially with any man; not, in truth, with her husband. There was no fear whatever of her conceiving an undue interest in Barfoot; certain reasons assured her of that; but talk that was at all sentimental gravely threatened her peace—what little remained to her. It would have been better to discourage this man’s confidences; yet they flattered her so pleasantly, and afforded such a fruitful subject for speculation, that she could not obey the prompting of prudence.